Under the Baobab: African Proverbs on Old Age
Certain truths are as solid as cassava and sweet as kola. To make them more digestible, the ancestors have seasoned them with proverbs. Of course, proverbs are the daughters of wisdom. Here is a selection of African proverbs on old age. Some seem to contradict the others. In fact, they just point out the multifaceted character of any human reality.
Believe me, it is sad to become old: An old man has no admirer (GIKUYU, Kenya). When the lion grows old, the flies attack him (CHAGGA, Tanzania). Nevertheless, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. Life is a palm branch that the winds bend (FANG, Gabon). Getting old is a law of life, if you don’t die before. Nobody crawls on all four three time (ZULU, South Africa): the first time as a baby, the second when you are old. There is no third time.
Polite people respect the aged and call them ‘senior’ or ‘elder’: Grey hair, even the pagans respect it (OROMO, Ethiopia). These compliments, however, will not make the breath less gasping. Old age remains an unpleasant affair in every corner of the world, in spite of people’s deference.
The old person must accept, therefore, the reality and avoid undertakings above one’s strength: The dance of an old man doesn’t last long (Kongo, RDC). If old age stops the hunter from going hunting, he must be content with telling his ancient exploits (BAMBARA, Mali). He would otherwise become ridiculous, because an old man does not fall out of step – -he slides (KONGO). People have no respect for an old person who goes to excesses. An old woman crushed a ripe banana and she was proud of it (YORUBA, Nigeria).
Old age’s limitations are to be expected: An old man does not run, unless a goat eats his cassava (MONGO, RDC). An old man is not put in a boat to row, but to give advice (LUGANDA, Uganda). With age, the faults of early childhood reappear: An old man is like a child (RUNDI, Burundi), and new faults also come out: White hair, hardened heart (SOMALI, Somalia). Yet, it seems probable that honest people live longer than crooks: A man reaches old age, if he has respected the groundnuts of his neighbour (KONGO).
NOTE: For the rest of this article see page 17 of the September-October, 1999 issue of New People Magazine published in Nairobi, Kenya.